Perspective Piece: Florida-Auburn

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 11, 2006

Preseason speculation has turned into the year 2001 for the Florida Gators and Auburn Tigers. When Urban Meyer and Tommy Tuberville match wits Saturday night on the Plains, it will seem as though the SEC has gone five years back in time.

At the beginning of this season, the majority of the college football cognoscenti felt that Auburn and Florida would play for the SEC title, but that the Tigers had an overall edge. This game in Jordan-Hare Stadium--at least in the eyes of most, at any rate--figured to have the Tigers as the unbeaten team, and the Gators as the one-loss ballclub with a path to victory in their division, but diminishing margin for error. Instead, the roles have been reversed, and suddenly, we have a startlingly strong echo of the 2001 encounter between these two schools. It dominates the landscape of this game, casting a long and interesting shadow over the proceedings on the Plains.

Go back to a Saturday night in mid-October five years ago. The No. 2 Florida Gators came to rural Alabama with swagger and confidence, fresh off a conquest of LSU that announced their burnished credentials to the college football world. Auburn--on that day--figured to have precious little hope of doing anything to stop the Gators, who had an offensive machine that was just beginning to roll... but had health concerns surrounding its No. 1 running back (Ernest Graham, who wound up not playing). A general feeling of dread and worry pervaded the Auburn community, and a sense of inadequacy permeated the Alabama air. It was hard to shake the feeling that Auburn wasn't going to measure up. Florida needed to falter and stutter for the home team to rise up and win.

Sixty minutes later, after the one poor performance of Rex Grossman's 2001 season--not to mention incredible sustained energy from a jacked-up Auburn team, motivated and managed superbly by Tuberville--the Tigers pulled the upset. The game offered lasting proof of how one week's mountaintop moment can turn into an ambush the following week. In the emotion-drenched world of college football, the players are young enough--and not professional enough--to the point that severe fluctuations in performance can and do emerge. If the energy and the nerves aren't right for one night, the competitive balance will flow to the team that entered the contest with bruised egos to go along with the even more battered bones and bodies.

Before going any further, let's be clear about this: comparing this Florida-Auburn night fight to the 2001 edition is, while apt on many levels, something less than a totally perfect comparison. No one would be caught dead thinking that Florida's 2006 offense is anywhere close to the 2001 offense. Moreover, Florida is still affirming its identity under Urban Meyer (the Gator head coach is succeeding and progressing in unmistakable ways, but he has to keep plugging away before the metamorphosis of Florida football can be said to be "complete" in a particularly meaningful sense), whereas the identity of the 2001 team, under veteran coach Steve Spurrier, was very well established. A third point is that this Auburn team--while revealing newfound signs of weakness in the wake of last week's loss to Arkansas--is a darn sight better than the 2001 Tigers. The Vegas line on this game is only, oh, 22 or 23 points different from the 2001 line (UF minus 21), and with good reason.

There's great reason for optimism from the Florida side heading into this game--much like 2001--but the pessimism on the Auburn side, which was much more legitimate five years ago, is being overstated this time around. Tommy Tuberville said otherwise in his press conference over the weekend, but the view here is that Auburn really did fail to show sufficient energy against the Razorbacks. The game had a sleepy start time (just after noon Eastern), which has been known to sneak up on young people now and then. The shocking disparity in rushing yards between the Hogs and Tigers was a function of line play, and line play--while inevitably and significantly linked to stunts, pulls, traps, and other matters of technique and alignment--is ultimately an extension of passion. Auburn had none--absolutely none--of the passion the Tigers displayed in their furious fireball of a fistfight against LSU a few weeks earlier. While the juiced-up Razorbacks flew around the field--as college kids will do when they're a disrespected underdog in a big division road game--Auburn players shuffled through the motions. The point of mentioning all this should be clear: Auburn--now against the wall--will show LSU-level energy against Florida. This alone should reduce the anxiety in the Auburn camp, which makes this game somewhat different from 2001.

But while a comparison with the 2001 Florida-Auburn game is far from perfect on all levels, it's still a comparison that works precisely because of the psychology. Florida is fundamentally armed with confidence, while Auburn isn't. And even if Auburn plays fairly well--given its current boat of talent and skill--the matchups in this game, pitting the Tigers' strengths against the Gators' best attributes (particularly with respect to Auburn's rush offense against Florida's rush defense), cut in Florida's favor. What this means for Saturday night's game is simple: Chris Leak--so close to his first division title, which would radically (and rightly) alter the larger assessment of his UF career--must play the kind of well-rounded football game that has largely evaded him during his years in Gainesville.

Notice that Leak doesn't have to play the "best" game of his life, or the "most dominating" game of his career, or score a big gob of points. No, Leak simply needs to turn in a well-rounded performance replete with the little things that, in past games and seasons, he hasn't been able to bring to the table. Leak is a student of the game and a thrower of beautiful spirals--no one would question those two statements about Florida's starting quarterback. The weird and hard-to-explain part of Leak's football portfolio, then, lies in the fact that he will sometimes make the right reads and the right decisions and throw a beautiful ball... but still get intercepted. Why? Because his beautiful ball is thrown a little too softly, with a little too much air, and perhaps a split-second too late. Against both Tennessee and LSU, Leak has properly thrown a deep ball to an open receiver downfield, only for the ball to hang a little short and be plucked by an opposing defender. This is a central dimension of a career that, up to this point, has had a close-but-not-quite quality. If Leak wants to nail down an SEC East title and punch a ticket to Atlanta--which the Gators could come very close to doing with a win (if they do defeat Auburn, they could lose to Georgia and still win the East if those same Dawgs lost at Auburn later in the year, a likely proposition)--he will need to make all the right points of emphasis at the right time. Leak can slide short of the first down on 2nd and 6 at his own 35, but not on 3rd and 2 at the Auburn 25. If he needs to zip a ball on occasion--not his usual style--he has to find the focus to do so. And here's the most important part of all: given that the Gators have an advantage in the game's biggest and most central matchups (something referred to above), Leak has to avoid that "pretty-ball" interception or any other kind of turnover that could represent Auburn's best, most immediate chance of winning. On a night when Florida's surging and sensational defense has a great chance to completely smother an Auburn offense desperately in search of immediate answers, it is up to Leak to avoid making the mistake that could totally transform the calculus--psychological and otherwise--of this very big ballgame.

Florida isn't as strong as it was five years ago, when the Gators invaded Auburn for a Saturday night showdown. Auburn isn't dealing with the uphill climb the Tigers faced back then, when another Tommy Tuberville team seemed completely outmanned by a loaded ballclub trying to defend an SEC title. Yes, a comparison between 2006 and 2001 is an incomplete one, but at the end of the day, the comparison still works: Florida has more confidence entering Jordan-Hare Stadium; Auburn has more doubt; and key matchups favor the Gators. When you clear through all the historical parallels and get down to the nitty-gritty of assessing this ballgame, it's ultimately up to Auburn to do something in the first half to change the psychology of the battle, and that's likely to come from Auburn's defense. Chris Leak is so close to a championship he can taste it; on Saturday night, Florida's quarterback needs to make timely plays while avoiding the untimely mistakes that derailed Florida's unbeaten season... and Rex Grossman, his predecessor... five very long years ago on the Alabama Plains.

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